With the appearance and stiffness of a hardtail, can Specialized's new S-Works Epic WC square the circle between reduced weight and increased control?
Specialized teased the new Epic World Cup on the race circuit for several months, and SRAM even revealed it before the official launch, but Specialized still had a surprise up its sleeve. Rather than replacing the long serving Brain equipped Epic full suspension bike, Specialized announced that the Epic WC meant the death of its top-end hardtails. And it certainly flavours a lot of the ride feel and aesthetics it delivers too.
Need to know
- Sub 10kg soft-tail XC race superbike, designed to replace hardtails not full suspension bikes
- Ultralight carbon frame and components
- Unique ‘set and forget’ RockShox-Specialized BRAIN/WCID suspension
- SRAM XX SL drivetrain with full race head power meter cranks and no dropper spec
With slender seatstays aligned to the top tube that largely swallows the unique shock, the Epic World Cup certainly looks like a hardtail. The 430mm chainstay length is exactly the same as the old S-Works Epic Hardtail too and the BB is only 4mm higher to accommodate the 75mm frame travel. Where a mid-shaft support bushing and micro swing link make the shock itself seriously stiff too.
Look closer though and you’ll see the Epic WC is a full feature suspension bike. There’s a conventional main pivot hidden behind the SRAM XX chainset and there’s even a tiny rocker link at the rear of the shock/seat stay junction to manipulate the shock’s behaviour.
Geometry wise, the 66.5º head angle is very close to the 110mm travel Epic EVO too. Reach also grows 10mm on large frames compared to the Epic hardtail, which also makes it 5mm longer than the EVO. Dynamic feel is significantly different to both though, but let’s get back to the bike at hand.
The S-Works version of the World Cup uses a higher grade Fact 12M composite than the 11M Pro model and the translucent frame coating is also superlight. That puts the claimed weight for the medium frameset and shock at 1,765g. Almost 250g lighter than the Trek Supercaliber SLR frame.
The bottom bracket is a conventional threaded unit and the frame has ample space for two bottles. You get a triangular ‘SWAT’ box to carry a tube and C02 cartridge, and a carbon bottle cage is included too. However the rear brake (all three current models use wireless AXS gears) is routed through the headset via the top bearing cap which won’t thrill mechanics.
As the name suggests the RockShox SIDLuxWCID shock is based on a standard RockShox SIDLuxe shock and shares many of the internals. It’s longer though, with an extra mid-shaft bushing to keep things lined up. That makes it around 33g heavier than the standard shock but you lose the weight of a remote control and lever. Instead, the action of the shock is defined by presetting the negative spring volume, anywhere from 0% (Specialized call this ‘Zero Gulp’) to 10% sag (‘Full Gulp’). This is done by depressurising the shock, then pressing a manual air transfer valve at full compression (10% sag), full extension (0% sag) or wherever you want between. And how you set the sag really transforms how the 75mm frame travel behaves. Confused? Don’t be. You set the positive pressure in the usual way, then you fine tune the negative pressure with the bleed valve to alter the initial suspension response. Purge all the air out of the negative chamber for the firmest ‘no sag/Zero Gulp’ set up.
For a more conventional suspension feel, deflate the shock then press the little brass bleed button with the shock at full compression before inflating the positive chamber for ‘Full Gulp, 10% sag. How far you compress the shock when deflated changes the Gulp and the influence of the negative chamber. You also have the ability to adjust low speed compression and rebound damping settings with an Allen key too.
Up front, Specialized has transferred its long running Brain inertia valve to the latest 110mm travel SID SL fork. This reactive lockout has preset ‘Brian fade’ sensitivity using a preloaded spring on the inertia valve. There’s no handlebar remote, but you can reach down and move the ‘fade’ lever on the fly with your hand if needed. The latest version has had the spike valve removed for a more open feel and even when ‘locked out’ you still get 15mm of cushion for traction. All in, the Brian system adds 183g over the standard fork, which makes it heavier than a manual remote and comparable with electronic suspension systems. The custom SID SL Ultimate fork also gets the latest machined crown.
Switching the ‘Spike Valve off means the fork is smoother off the top, but then it moves more when sprinting out of the saddle, even in its firmest setting. In reality, the actual movements at both ends are very small and probably don’t affect efficiency much. Losing the psychosomatic ‘locked suspension’ advantage is potentially a big deal for racers though, and is in contrast with the ‘pedals like a hardtail’ marketing.
Paying £11,000 for the S-Works build means almost everything is state-of-the-art ultralight equipment That includes the Roval SL one-piece carbon combined cockpit, S-Works saddle with carbon base and rails, 1,200g Roval Control SL wheels and even the new Roval SL carbon seat post rather than a dropper.
Transmission is SRAM’s top line XX SL AXS wireless kit including a carbon cage mech, XX SL cassette and slotted flat top chain. There’s also a full Quarq power meter on the narrow stance 168mm Q-Factor chainset. Specialized’s partner brand Roval provides the superlight Control SL wheels. Tyres are Specialized too, with the excellent and vapour light 580g FastTrak S-Works up front and slicker but tougher 650g Renegade Control out back. Our only gripe with the build is that the 2-piston SRAM Level Ultimate brakes are both less powerful and 10g heavier than the 4-piston version. Lever feel is great though and you get a 180mm front rotor for power compensation.
While chats with Specialized’s design team revealed that the World Cup isn’t actually any stiffer than either of the other Epic bikes, it certainly feels very rigid on the trail. This starts with the very stiff, gull-wing carbon cockpit and machined crown of the new SID SL fork. While the Brain fork is more open than before, it still has a clipped and efficient, rather than forgiving feel as hits get bigger and faster. The increased fork to wheel connection provided by the Torque Cap hub end caps that Specialized has been smart enough to fit, is also noticeable in the tracking. The broad Control SL rims and Specialized tyres are also more accurate yet grippy than you’d expect for an XC set-up. That means you can make the most of the slacker head angle and dropped front end to really attack the trail.
In the lower ‘Gulp’ settings Specialized has deliberately gone for a rigid feel and even in ‘Full Gulp’ mode (maximum negative spring) you’re only getting 4mm of sag on the shock. That means the rear end is either pressed against – or rattling off – the top out bumper of the shock. Also with very limited negative travel the suspension can’t extend into holes or undulations in the trail. This means you’re generally riding on top of the trail like a hardtail rather than sinking into it for more consistent connection.
Yes, the sub 10kg overall weight is hyper responsive in terms of acceleration and hop and pop agility. The instant reactions of the superlight wheels and tyres are amplified by the rapid engagement of the DT Swiss 180 rear hub. Even the lack of remote controls for the suspension leave both the bar aesthetics and your brain activity free from any unnecessary clutter in the same way a hardtail does.
If you’re spinning rather than stomping, the hollow carbon cranks in Zero to Half Gulp settings, the back end is locked against the stops on smooth trails to continue the hardtail illusion. However, the low anti squat kinematic means that even in Zero Gulp mode it’s possible to get the back end bouncing by pedalling hard or in squares.
Move towards Full Gulp and the ‘rubber chain’ sensation when pedalling is not only very obvious but it also feels out of phase with the normal power points of the drivetrain. It’s like you’ve fitted an asymmetric chainring but clocked it wrong, and while it’s something you’ll get used to it felt weird every time we rode the Epic WC.
The gain is that the rear wheel still moves easily even when pedalling hard, so it hooks up over boulders/steps and roots really well when you get on the gas. With a distinct lack of pedal kick back as the suspension compresses, a ‘Mega Jounce Bumper’ has been introduced to help control bottom out of bigger drops or when hitting big singular rock slaps.
Ultimately, though, if you want your XC race bike to feel stiff and positive under power the softness of the Epic WC is really demoralising when sprinting out of corners, charging up climbs or any other power play situations. Dialling the softness out with the low-speed compression adjuster is one option, but you risk amplifying the already harsh, chattery feel from the lack of negative spring volume and constant top out even more.
The real plot twist though is that the excellent S-Works Epic Evo with similar geometry but 110mm of conventional rear travel has a frame that’s over 100g lighter. Wild, right?
So where does that leave the S-Works Epic World Cup? In terms of handling and pure racer spec it is excellent. The range suspension tuning means it’s potentially a great suspension gateway for aggressive racers who are tired of hardtail masochism but don’t want to be distracted with lockout levers. Frame rigidity, geometry and suspension smoothness mean I’d pick it over the existing Epic full suspension bike too.
If you’re looking for a stiff hardtail feel with set-and-forget big hit/clamber climb suspension, progressive geometry, excellent real racer’s spec and uncluttered aesthetics, the Epic World Cup could be for you. Especially now that it’s been reduced in price by £1,000 since launch, making it both lighter, more adjustable in feel and cheaper than the similarly ‘auto suspension’ Epic S-Works. We say “could be”, because even after a couple of months of exhaustive shock fettling it was really hard to find a balance between the surprisingly soggy pedalling character and harshly fatiguing ‘topped out’ behaviour of the rear suspension. It just can’t handle big hits or match the traction/comfort levels of longer travel XC bikes that generally pedal better and weigh a similar amount too.